Gender and competition in adolescence: task matters


We look at gender differences among adolescents in Sweden in preferences for competition, altruism and risk. For competitiveness, we explore two different tasks that differ in associated stereotypes. We find no gender difference in competitiveness when comparing performance under competition to that without competition. We further find that boys and girls are equally likely to self-select into competition in a verbal task, but that boys are significantly more likely to choose to compete in a mathematical task. This gender gap diminishes and becomes non-significant when we control for actual performance, beliefs about relative performance, and risk preferences, or for beliefs only. Girls are also more altruistic and less risk taking than boys.

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  1. 1.

    In particular, this might give rise to segregation in secondary education and consequently segregation in college or university education.

  2. 2.

    Boys perform on average significantly better in the math task across all classes. From an optimality perspective though, the share of girls choosing to compete should not be smaller than that of boys. This is due to the fact that the gender composition of classes varies a lot and depends on academic specialization. Some classes therefore contain a large majority of girls or boys, and this is mirrored among the top performers in each class.

  3. 3.

    Among the participants, 56 attended the first year (57 % girls), 95 the second (51 % girls) and 50 the third year in high school (50 % girls). 15 students attended a mixed class with students from years 1 and 2 (47 % girls). For these students we have no information on which year they actually attended at the moment of the study.

  4. 4.

    Participants earned on average about SEK 25. In comparison to previous studies on adults these incentives are small (see for example Niederle and Vesterlund 2007), while in comparison to similar studies on children the incentives are more important (see for example Cárdenas et al. 2012).

  5. 5.

    When constructing this comparison group we made a random draw with replacement for each participant separately. This implied that a participant could be drawn for comparison more than once.

  6. 6.

    In one of our previous studies in Sweden, the math task has been rated as more boyish and the word task as more girlish by both genders (Cárdenas et al. 2012). Moreover, vocabulary knowledge is positively correlated with reading comprehension (Yovanoff et al. 2005).

  7. 7.

    The charity was the Swedish section of “Save the children”. We chose Save the Children since it is a large and well-established NGO in Sweden. Even if Save the Children does not explicitly focus or work on gender issues, there could be gender differences in perceptions of the charity.

  8. 8.

    We collected a variety of variables (the full survey is available from the authors on request). In this paper we use class (year), birth month, height, GPA, and life satisfaction (scale 0–10).

  9. 9.

    We also perform a regression analysis for each behavior using the control variables from the survey (class year, birth month, height, GPA, and life satisfaction). The female coefficient remains similar for all behaviors except altruism, where it is no longer significant. Most control variables are not significant. For those that are significant, we find the following correlations: altruism is negatively correlated with birth month (individuals born early are more altruistic) whereas it is positively correlated with class year and GPA. Risk taking is positively correlated with class year. Competitiveness as measured by the choice to compete in the verbal task is negatively correlated with GPA. For competitive performance change we also conduct a quantile regression on absolute performance change and find no gender gap in math or word search in any part of the performance distribution.

  10. 10.

    Given that the gender gap in math performance in Sweden is small compared to many other countries (Guiso et al. 2008) this is a somewhat puzzling result. However, it might have to do with the specific sample of schools in our study.

  11. 11.

    One participant did not choose payment scheme for the third stage in math, and two did not perform in this stage. In the word task, two participants did not choose a payment scheme. When possible, these individuals are included in the analysis. Including or excluding these participants has no effect on the results.

  12. 12.

    A sample size analysis indicates that 2037 observations would be needed to obtain a significant result for the gender gap in competition choice in word search. The basis for the power calculation is a significance level of 5 % and a power of 80 %.

  13. 13.

    A t-test indicates that boys are significantly under-confident in math (p=0.041).

  14. 14.

    Actual performance and beliefs about performance in the regression analysis is based on performance and relative performance beliefs in the second stage (the tournament). Using performance in the third stage instead of performance in the second stage does not qualitatively change our gender results. Since 14 participants were inconsistent in their choices in the risk task, the risk measure included here is the number of risky choices the participants make.

  15. 15.

    Including interaction variables between female and performance and female and performance beliefs do not provide further insights; the results do not alter.

  16. 16.

    A correlation analysis between all the behaviors we examine also shows that altruism is positively related to risk taking (as number of risky choices) in the incentivized risk task (p<0.001), but not in the self-reported question. We also find no correlation between altruism and competitive choices (p=0.255 for math and p=0.479 for word). A similar pattern is found among boys and girls separately. See Appendix Table 8. Our regression results do not change if we include altruism as a control variable.

  17. 17.

    The result is qualitatively similar when analyzing the number of risky choices instead of the switching point in order to include individuals that switch back and forth between the lottery and the safe points. Girls are still less risk taking compared to boys (p=0.007). Moreover, there is no gender difference in the variance of the incentivized risk taking variable (p=0.210).

  18. 18.

    Matrilocality often refers to a society in which a married couple lives with or close to the wife’s parents.


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We are grateful for comments from Johan Almenberg, Simon Gächter, Uri Gneezy, Magnus Johannesson, Christoph Mathys, Astri Muren, Robert Östling, David G. Rand, Roberto Weber, the editor David Cooper, two anonymous referees, and seminar participants at WAPPP at the Harvard Kennedy School, MOVE Workshop on Gender Differences in Competitiveness and Risk Taking, Stockholm School of Economics and Stockholm University, as well as help with the data collection from Aron Backström, Peter Gerlach and Karin Hederos Eriksson. Financial support from the Jan Wallander and Tom Hedelius Foundation, the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research (FAS) and the Carl Silfvén Foundation is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Eva Ranehill.

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These are example exercises, of a similar type as the participants encountered during the study.

Example math exercise: 10+83+56=___________

Example word puzzle:

Table 8 Correlation matrix between altruism, risk preferences and competitiveness

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Dreber, A., von Essen, E. & Ranehill, E. Gender and competition in adolescence: task matters. Exp Econ 17, 154–172 (2014).

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  • Competitiveness
  • Risk preferences
  • Altruism
  • Adolescents
  • Gender differences
  • Experiment

JEL Classification

  • C91
  • D03
  • J16